“On the threshold of a gigantic new technology”

“One can be sobered by the realization that virtually all the earlier technologies of our species—stonework, metallurgy, internal combustion, electronics—have been used for peaceful purposes, but all have also been exploited vigorously for hostile ones,” said Matthew Meselson, Ph.D., a microbiologist and expert in biological weapons. In a talk on October 23 sponsored by the Institute for Social and Policy Studies, “Averting Hostile Exploitation of Biotechnology,” he noted that with the unlocking of the human genome the stakes are even greater. “We are on the threshold of a gigantic new technology,” said Meselson, Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences at Harvard. “It is totally different from all the previous technologies because it has the potential to change what it means to be human.” Controlling this new technology, he said, requires an international norm that would bar its hostile use.

Production and use of biological weapons, Meselson believes, should rank with aircraft hijacking and state-sponsored torture as an international crime with universal jurisdiction. He used the example of former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested in England after a judge in Spain filed charges against him for the torture of dissidents in Chile. “The development, production and use of biological weapons is the result of decisions made by individuals,” Meselson said. “Why not hold individuals responsible?”